David “Dread” Hinds was born in 1956, in Handsworth, Birmingham, England, to parents who migrated to England from Jamaica in the mid-1950s. He is the founding member, rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist for roots reggae band Steel Pulse. He was influenced with reggae music from a young age and the band was founded at Handsworth Wood Boys Secondary School in 1975. Besides David, the band is also composed of Basil Gabbidon (lead guitar, vocals), and Ronald McQueen (bass). Steel Pulse were the first non-Jamaican act to win the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with their 1985 album Babylon the Bandit. They have also received Grammy nominations for Victims (1991) and Rastafari Centennial (1992). The band has toured in various countries and collaborated with many reggae icons over the years. Their studio albums Handsworth Revolution (1978), True Democracy (1982), Earth Crisis (1984), African Holocaust (2004) and others echo pan African messages and they are known for songs against racism and political corruption. David and the rest of the band’s members have been part of political and social protests, especially in the UK and other countries as well. David has written songs for various films including “I-Spy,” which was featured in the movie “Klash” (1995) and “Can’t Stand the Heat,” which was featured in “Do the Right Thing”. David recently visited Ethiopia and Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen of The Reporter spoke with him about Steel Pulse’s decades-long revolutionary journey.
The Reporter: Let’s start with why you are in Ethiopia? And since this is your first visit, how does it feel to be here?
David Hinds: My being here must have been through some sort of divine intervention. I was supposed to be en route to Costa Rica to do a show, but it got cancelled. I have an album to complete and it was tossing between going back to the US but, work visa has not allowed me to get back to the US yet, and I wasn’t going to go back to England. Out of the blue, something told me to head to these vibes here. Special to the fact that I have a friend, Doctor Dread, who is already coming here, but I have dismissed the idea of coming to Ethiopia because of the show.
When it was postponed to July I took a plane and came. My plan is to go to Shashemene and Lalibella to learn more history, to get more information about how the economy is doing, how the people are interacting socially and how they relate to people visiting from other parts of the world. I didn’t come to perform because I am here without the band, but we want to come back before the year is out to do a show.
Shashemene, part of the land was granted by Emperor Haile Selassie Ι, and christened the ‘Promised Land’ by the Rastafarian community, what are your expectations going there?
In the eyes of the Rastafari, we see Shashemene as the ‘promised land’ given to us by Haile Selassie. One of the first encounters I had was through pictures going back 25 to 30 years. A friend who did an essay project would show me pictures. One of the questions that came to my mind looking through images in the book was, ‘where are the Rastas?’ I hadn’t come across anyone with dreadlocks before. When I started investigating, I realized many came and decided to cut their dreads. Then I heard about the land being taken away from them during the Derg regime.
I heard there was probably going to be time where that land is going to be taken away and there wasn’t much development from the time people have been occupying the land. I have not been hearing anything promising, but I know how propaganda can be. Especially when it comes to Rastafari, it can be somewhat negative. So I want to see for myself. I am hoping it is going to be interesting and there is going to be hardships. If I am thinking it is going to be like walking through a palace, I got another thing coming. I want to be left with someone from another walk of life, say from Jamaica or other parts of Babylon who are trying to make something of themselves. I hope I can go back home knowing people have come and made an effort to make things happen.
Your latest album was expected to be released in 2013, how is it coming along?
The last album was released in 2004. A new album is coming out this year. We have been putting out singles and making comments about sociopolitical situations throughout the world. One is the situation in the US where the police shot a lot of black youth, especially during the time of Barack Obama’s administration. We put out “Put Your Hoodies On,” a song dedicated to Trayvon Martin and “Don’t Shoot” for Michael Brown. Another song is “From Natty to Hattie,” a rendition of what Bob Dylan did in 1963. Four years ago was the 50th anniversary of the killing of Hattie Carroll, a hotel kitchen worker murdered in Baltimore.
When Obama got elected we put out “Paint it Black”, we talked about painting the White House black. “Vote Barak” is an initiation of him becoming president. We are not a political band and we are not saying we support his politics. We do not support people being killed by drones. However, we became supportive of the administration because he is the first black president. That represented all black people all over the world. In the West, there has always been this psychological brain-washing that we the descendants of slaves can’t achieve much. As a result, black people didn’t set their goals so high. Obama broke another barrier and raised the bar where a black kid cannot only think that they can become a basketball player or a rapper, but can even aspire to be a president of a country outside of the continent of Africa.
Walk us through the formation of Steel Pulse through the sociopolitical situation of England in the 1970s?
My parents were part of the post-war wave of migration. We being born as blacks in Britain never felt we belong there. They always were a bunch of people known as the National Front, in this particular case a racist movement. In our teens, with reggae music influencing us about Rastafari, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey and the Back to Africa movement, we automatically thought we found something we could finally latch onto. We have been told, ‘you don’t belong here, get back on your banana boat, etc.’ With the Rastafari movement, we were able to stand up, no longer having our chins placed to our chest. Walking tall knowing full well that we have a history that dates back way before the Europeans came to play. We started as a band writing songs based on our experiences from a British standpoint and we started to sing about our suffering.
What were the challenges when it comes to being a reggae act?
It was the first time reggae was trying to gain a foothold in the UK. We had nothing to follow. Black people are brain washed into finding it hard to accept new things. The black community initially couldn’t relate to black bands based in England playing reggae music. As far as they were concerned, the original forms of reggae music come out of Jamaica. The white people gravitated a lot quicker to what the blacks were doing in roots reggae music. There was a time when black music wasn’t played much on the radio, especially reggae music. One of the platforms we jumped on was being the opening act for the punk rock period. Another road that wasn’t easy was that a lot of blacks that wanted to establish nightclubs had a problem in keeping their license if they invited reggae acts to their clubs because people associated that with marijuana smoking.
What was the band’s role in Rock Against Racism (RAR), a campaign that grew as a response to white nationalist groups you mentioned such as the National Front and involved acts with an anti-racist theme?
It came about a rock legend Eric Clapton who in 1975 put out Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”. Within a year of doing that hit record, he makes a statement on stage in Birmingham saying negative things about black people going back to their own countries and keeping Britain white. A lot of people decided to act up on it and turn the negative experience of what he said to a positive one by having a movement called Rock Against Racism. It hosted itself at Victoria Park in London. There were about 80,000 people. We as a young band were at the time playing in my father’s basement. The movement set the template of how England was going to be from then on as regards how people feel about racism.
Steel Pulse have been preaching about peace and love and fighting injustice for over three decades. How do you see your music’s impact with regard to echoing what you believe in?
It brought about awareness everywhere. The music industry was categorized but, once reggae got established in the UK, there is a lot more in regards to TV presentations and more airtime on radio. There still wasn’t enough black music played on the radio so stations started to launch when it was illegal to have a radio station playing music that was interfering with corporations of the UK. That was slightly eroded because whites were realizing the idea of not respecting blacks in the UK was having a negative impact and decided in trying to twist things to be more harmonious. We became part of that and everywhere we went was sold out. We got recognized through Bob Marley, and we got more exposed going on tour with him in Europe. We opened the eyes of people to look into themselves in their own environment and realize what was going on. We became spokesmen to the hardship that was happening in the communities.
What’s your reflection on this struggle being fought by the young reggae acts today?
When we started out, it was roots reggae music — mentally, politically and spiritually. There was a time when we needed to keep the music alive by exposing it to the rest of the world and in the industry to give the musicians a reason to survive. When Marley died, the industry collapsed. Reggae music went underground for a long time. It surfaced again when guys like Capleton, Sizzla and Bobo Shanti came. Acts like Turbulence and Junior Reid came back with a rebellious side of music. But, there was still the question what else do you offer us other than Jah Rastafari and we are going to burn down Babylon. Here the rest of the world had to be involved with Alpha Blondy, and other acts even white reggae in the US.
Now reggae music is transcending from Jamaica to countries that have established it in a positive way and held on to roots aspects of it. This is where the youth can now relate. They will not probably know Steel Pulse, but when the bands they love mention to them there were bands like us that became part of that trailblazing scenario, they will go back to looking the momentum of what we are about. Reggae is still an underground movement compared to other music. There are music selling more than reggae. Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga sell a lot. But, when it comes to the heart of the people, especially the majority of the world being poor, reggae is the music that the world gravitates to. Because reggae is about poverty, oppression and, in general, about people surviving hardship.
You said reggae is still an underground movement and there is low responsiveness of the mainstream media towards conscious music. What is the artists’ role in changing this?
The acts themselves are becoming more business savvy. Acts like Chronixx, Protoje, Jesse Royal and Jah9 are not only doing music but they are going about it in a professional, business way. Acts like ourselves weren’t doing that before. We were always relying on agents and managers and when the dossier is settled, the band has nothing. These guys now incorporate themselves with promoting their shows. Once you start doing things yourself there is no stopping. If you got money, then you can have your own radio stations and TV network to get more exposure. There are a lot of acts that are making a lot of money and they are not putting themselves in a position to bring the others that are in the barrel. When it comes to black music, the industry is still having a negative impact. Once they start exposing themselves and become more media-savvy, they can attract other acts. Once they start doing this, the youth can see what these acts are trying to achieve.
Where do you think Ethiopian music fits in this scenario?
Ethiopia has become an established country through a lot of channels. When it comes to reggae music, the whole world knows it. The musicians see Ethiopia as the utopia, the paradise, the Zion and as the pinnacle of anything. I am hoping Ethiopia realizes this. For example, I was surprised not to see the lion on the flag because that’s what we were used to seeing. Ethiopia should promote anyone who has a strong following in their communities, like Teddy Afro. I understand there was a time he couldn’t do a show and that’s absurd. For me, he is the greatest Ethiopian act. Ethiopia needs to open up more. There will be Ethiopian musicians in Spain in few months and having the country with good representation of its music in a festival is a good way to go. Another thing is having a reggae festival in Ethiopia. It might not be able to attract Africans because for the majority ticket prices might not be affordable. There needs to be a way where Ethiopia can attract people from other parts of the world and, in that way, Ethiopian culture can be promoted.
Your album “African Holocaust” included songs that criticize African politicians and what is going on in the rest of the world. Can you elaborate the themes of the album that also includes tracks dedicated to prominent activists?
The album’s sleeve speaks for itself; it is based on people I have admired throughout history, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., H. Rap Brown and Patrice Lumumba. These people were assassinated by the intelligence agencies of the US or killed on the street by racists. They became prominent figures in my life because they wanted to change the plight of the African diaspora. “Tyrant” is based on the negative legacy of African post-colonial leaders that became puppets of countries that had colonized them. “No More Weapon” is about how we are living in a world of weapons of mass destruction where at the end of the day it is always the poor people that did nothing in the first place who get hurt.
We feature Damian Marley in the song, and he did an excellent job. Throughout history, I see people using people as a political tool to get what they want. I believe religion has always been and will always be a tool to manipulate and control the minds. We are in a religious war right now. It is the mineral that the land is endowed with that is at the root of every war. If it’s not the oil, diamond or gold, then it is the land itself.
That is a Grammy-nominated album and you have won a Grammy for the album “Babylon the Bandit”. This being part of your journey, along with having three generations of fans, how do you explain your expedition and the element that kept you moving forward as a band?
We are putting out a documentary and being in Ethiopia is going to be part of the journey. We have written about Ethiopia in our songs. What kept us alive is not selling records. The journey started when we decided to lay down the ideology of what we are about. Out of all bands with similar messages, Steel Pulse became the most efficient in holding up the concept we had. We were able to sustain ourselves knowing people believed in what we are about. It is the children and grandchildren of the people that were about the band that attend our concerts. We have kept real and the people have kept us real.
I understand you have recently started painting. How do you use visual arts as another form of self-expression and to transmit your views?
I started painting when I was a kid but stopped when I was 18 because I thought music was the way to go. When I had sprained my shoulders and I was unable to carry a guitar, I was moping around in the living room. One of my family members threw a sketch-book in my hand. I got a few lessons, and started out after not touching a brush in over forty years. I spent two years in art school when I was a kid and those years became catalyst of how I see things as a musician. I learned about political figures that make painters paint like Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”.
I have been involved with portrait paintings of Mandela, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, and I am also working on Muhammed Ali because the end of April is the fiftieth anniversary since he was stripped of his title. He has been one of my mentors as far as being brazen. I am a coward at heart really, so I try to latch on to people that are seen with bravery radiating through them. From all the decades I have lived through, the 60s were the most revolutionary.
Haile Selassie founded the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, Lumumba was executed in 1963, Muhammed Ali was stripped of his title in 1967, Malcolm X was shot in 1965, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. I’m glad I am old enough to have lived through all that and understand it to present it to the world today.
Can you tell us about the charity song you did to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims, especially as opposed to that of “We are the world”?
Bob Geldof was the European representative where they had all acts at the time singing to raise money, which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wasn’t much into, so she wanted to tax it. This shows where the politicians in Europe had their hearts when it comes to African problems. We recognized they were talking about a country where reggae acts have as number one in their hearts and minds, but not one reggae act was featured. We went to Jamaica and made “The Land of Africa”. Obviously it is not going to have the credibility and generate the money the others generate. But we made an effort to do something to help.
You also did “Hold on [4 Haiti]”, can you elaborate these activist works with regard to black people helping out other black people in need?
Haiti is the most African country outside of Africa. Haiti is the first black nation that liberated itself from colonialism and slavery, and for which it is paying a price to this day. They remain poor and owe France several million dollars as payment for their freedom. When it comes to earth-quake and famine, Europeans are going to pretend they are going to rush to their aid but they spend a lot of time using aid as an example to the other Caribbean countries saying this is what you are going to be like when you decide to become independent.
We have to dismiss the idea of a white savior. Every time they come to save it is under conditions. We went to Haiti and teamed up with Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). The idea is to supply Haiti with solar panels. A friend of mine helped me along the way and now he has a program based on the Haile Selassie School in Jamaica. When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, he donated money to build a school there. It is located in the ghettos of Kingston and the school got run down over the years. He wants me to be a part of that. But funds are tight, and we don’t have a major label. In the 80s once you had an album, there was money thrown at you by record labels. Now the Internet has taken over the sale of music. But we intend to try to cater for everyone, including putting things back because the people served us and we want to start serving the people.